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Opinions & Editorial 16 Mar, 2020 Follow News


The COVID-19 outbreak is forcing a rethink of how society organises and conducts itself; from individual to group interactions.

Personal space has now taken on the broader interpretation of social space and housing is one area where this has come into a rather disconcerting focus.

A closer examination of beyond the family setting takes us into the area of close proximity accommodations driven by a demand for labour, especially cheap and imported labour.

It’s not unusual, in fact quite prevalent though generally overlooked, because it has become such a common feature in our society for migrant workers to be housed in woefully overcrowded conditions.

These cramped accommodations are however argued by some to be of a better standard than some workers' dwellings in their countries of origin.

And that may very well be so. But it's an uncomfortable trade-off.

This is evident not just in the rich and other relatively well-to-do countries, but wherever the less-well-off (read; poorer) people move in search of better economic opportunities.

The ‘developed’ world, hungry for cheap - and in most of these cases, migrant - labour often sees these people exploited in search of their sometimes elusive dreams.

In many instances these workers who form an important cog in the wheels that keep wealthy societies running, exist in a world far removed from the one they serve.

It’s not far-fetched to describe some of their living conditions as squalid.

It’s not unusual to hear accounts of, men especially, living five or more to a room meant for one person.

While often-times less so for female workers, such inhospitable conditions pose other challenges for them.

Although they might have entered the country through proper labour recruitment channels to satisfy skilled and general labour demand, these workers quite often end up in these challenging housing situations.

Cramped accommodations and low rent for many of them are accepted as part of the ‘bargain’, and comparatively low pay locally, though high compared to their home countries, allows them to send home remittances.

That's the reality of the trade-off.

But these conditions, as is now being highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic are quite literally Petri dishes for the disease to rapidly develop and spread.

In such an environment self-isolating becomes a major challenge for the health authorities to manage should it come to that.

And in the event of COVID-19 or any other infectious disease in such cramped conditions, the challenge of treatment and isolating become even more acute.

The risk of spreading disease in these types of circumstances not only puts the occupants of such dwellings at risk, but it also poses a health hazard to the wider community.

The pace at which COVID-19 is spreading and the recommendations to combat it by heightened personal hygiene and social spaces brings this matter into sharp focus.

It requires looking into as part of the overall strategy to curtail the spread of that disease and others, both in the current situation and going forward.

Our society might have been turning a blind eye to this matter; a convenient trade-off for cheap labour to maintain our standard of living.

COVID-19 has virtually lifted the lid and exposed this societal incongruity.

The risk is greater than the reward; for the occupants of these cramped accommodations, their landlords, and the wider community.

As a caring society, Cayman cannot afford to turn a blind eye any longer or sweep it under the carpet.

Not only is it unacceptable, but it’s also a public health risk waiting to happen.

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